Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images
Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

8 Climatic Facts About Our Abnormally Warm Winter

Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images
Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

It was warm this winter. Freakishly warm, in fact. It was warm enough that we probably should have felt guilty for enjoying it so much. After all, any time you can open your windows when you’re supposed to be shivering and watching travel shows for warmth is a strange situation. Most of the United States just lived through one of the warmest Februarys on record to close out one of the warmest winters on record. Here are some statistics that will show you just how unusually balmy it’s been for the past three months.

1. THIS FEBRUARY WAS WARMER THAN NORMAL.

A map of how warm this February was compared to previous years. Stations showing a ‘1’ experienced the warmest February ever recorded at that location. Image Credit: SERCC

 
It shouldn’t come as any shock that February’s temperatures were above-average when you crunch the numbers. Out of 888 weather observing stations across the lower 48, a solid 60 percent of those stations (or 534 locations) saw their top-10 warmest February on record this year. Even worse is that 186 of those locations—scattered from the depths of Texas to the Canadian border—recorded their all-time warmest February, with some records stretching back more than 100 years.

2. THE WHOLE WINTER WAS WARMER THAN NORMAL.

Not only was this past February a record-breaker, but the whole winter was warm on average. Data from the Southeast Regional Climate Center shows that over half of those 888 weather observing stations in the contiguous United States saw this winter place among the top ten warmest winters ever recorded, with almost all of the toasty stations residing east of the Rocky Mountains. Most of the all-time warmest winter records were set in the southern part of the country, including cities like Houston, Texas, and Raleigh, North Carolina.

3. THE WARMTH KEPT MOST OF THE SNOW AT BAY.

Taken just one day apart in early February, two views of the downtown Manhattan skyline—one warm and sunny, the other obscured by snow—as seen from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Image Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

 
As you can imagine, you’re not going to find very much snow when it’s relatively toasty out there. There have been other winters with less snow than most places saw this year, but the differences are negligible. Take Washington D.C., for example. Washington National Airport, which sits just across the Potomac River from the capital city itself, typically sees about 15 inches of snow every year. They’ve recorded just over an inch of snow this year. On the list of least-snowy winters in the nation’s capital, this winter ranks fourth since records began in 1940.

4. CHICAGO SAW NO SNOW IN JANUARY OR FEBRUARY.

Even more unusual is the fact that Chicago went through the entire months of January and February without seeing one lick of snow cover the ground. According to the city’s National Weather Service office, this was the first time in the city’s 146 years of recording weather observations that they didn’t see any snow on the ground during the dead of winter. The city saw a foot-and-a-half of snow spread out over several storms during the month of December, but all of that snow melted by Christmas. The most they’ve seen since then is a “trace” of snow, which is snow that falls but instantly melts when it hits the ground.

5. THE GREAT LAKES WERE RELATIVELY ICE-FREE.

While we’re looking toward the Midwest, it’s worth noting that the Great Lakes were surprisingly ice-free this season. The five lakes only saw about 15 percent of their surface covered by ice during the season’s maximum extent on February 8, and what little ice did form this year is rapidly melting as warm air continues to bathe the enormous bodies of water. Since NOAA began keeping records back in 1973, a typical winter sees a little more than half of the Great Lakes covered with ice during the peak of winter, but the coverage has been as low as 11 percent, a record achieved in 2002.

6. THE LEAVES LOVED IT, THOUGH.

A map showing how unusually early (or late) leaves first showed up on trees in 2017 compared to normal. Image Credit: USANPN

Humans aren’t the only organisms enjoying the reprieve from winter’s grip. The USA National Phenology Network tracks the extent of trees budding and growing leaves as spring begins to set in. According to their observations, almost every part of the United States that has leaves on its trees right now saw those leaves appear a full three weeks ahead of schedule—what it calls "very large anomalies." This is welcome news for the birds and the bees, but if there’s a sudden cold snap in March—which isn’t unheard of—it could do some serious damage to any plants that are suddenly more vulnerable than normal.

7. THE WARMTH LED TO SOME SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS.

When you put an active weather pattern together with warm and unstable air, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll wind up with strong thunderstorms at some point. We saw several rounds of severe weather this spring, resulting in at least three fatalities on the last day of February. Severe weather is fairly common in the southeast due to its proximity to muggy air over the Gulf of Mexico, but severe weather stretched unusually far north this year. A tornado that touched down in western Massachusetts on February 25 was the only tornado ever recorded in the state during the month of February, and quite possibly the farthest north we’ve ever seen a tornado since reliable records began in 1950.

8. SO WHY HAS IT BEEN SO WARM?

Why has it been so warm in the east and so cool and active out west? It has to do with the jet stream. For the past couple of years, there’s been a huge ridge in the jet stream over the West Coast that kept them warm and dangerously dry, while the jet stream dipped south and brought cooler, more active weather to the rest of the United States. That pattern broke this year, essentially reversing itself and keeping the warmth-inducing ridge out east while the jet stream in the west keeps dipping south and bringing them a steady stream of rough weather. One theory as to why the pattern flipped is the disappearance of the infamous “Blob,” a nickname given to an unusually warm area of water in the northeastern Pacific Ocean. That water cooled off, which may have allowed the jet stream to readjust itself into the pattern we’ve seen this winter.

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Why Does the Sky Look Green Before a Tornado?
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A common bit of folklore from tornado-prone parts of the U.S. says that when the skies start taking on an emerald hue, it's time to run inside. But why do tornadoes tend to spawn green skies in the first place? As SciShow's Michael Aranda explains, the answer has to do with the way water droplets reflect the colors of the light spectrum.

During the day, the sky is usually blue because the shorter, bluer end of the light spectrum bounces off air molecules better than than redder, longer-wavelength light. Conditions change during the sunset (and sunrise), when sunlight has to travel through more air, and when storms are forming, which means there are more water droplets around.

Tornadoes forming later in the day, around sunset, do a great job of reflecting the green part of the light spectrum that's usually hidden in a sunset because of the water droplets in the clouds, which bounce green light into our eyes. But that doesn't necessarily mean a twister is coming—it could just mean a lot of rain is in the forecast. Either way, heading inside is probably a good idea.

For the full details on how water and light conspire to turn the sky green before a storm, check out the SciShow video below.

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Weather Watch
New Contest Will Give Kids the Chance to Become Weather Channel Meteorologists for a Day
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Not every kid dreams of being an on-air meteorologist, but for young ‘uns obsessed with storm forecasts and local weather reports, a new contest presents a unique opportunity to live out their dreams. The Mini Meteorologist Contest, sponsored by Lands’ End, will give four kids a chance to present a weather report on The Weather Channel this summer.

The nationwide contest is open to future meteorologists in the U.S. and Canada ages 6 to 16. To enter, they just have to write an essay between 50 and 500 words long on why they love learning about science and weather and why they’d like to be a meteorologist for a day. Four winners will receive a trip for them and their parents to The Weather Channel’s headquarters in Atlanta. They’ll have the opportunity to report the weather for the show on July 12, which happens to be National Summer Learning Day.

The essays will be judged based in equal parts on creativity, grammar, and the entrant’s love of meteorology. The only rules for the essays are that they can’t mention any products or brands other than Lands’ End or The Weather Channel (so no essays about how L.L. Bean inspired your love of cloud formations, kids) and has to be the child’s original work. Kids who are chosen as semi-finalists will have their on-air presentation skills judged in a Skype interview.

Should they win, they’ll get an inclusive trip to Atlanta with media training, a tour of The Weather Channel headquarters, and a $500 Lands’ End gift card to get just the right weather-reporting wardrobe.

The deadline for entering is May 21. Essays can be submitted here.

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